Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, wants to see some big changes in his party. Photo: Getty
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“The party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite”: Labour MP Simon Danczuk

As Ukip’s gains and Ed Miliband’s awkward Sun moment prompt questions about Labour’s blue-collar vote, the party’s MP for Rochdale opens up about the changes he’d like to see from his leader.

The MP for Rochdale Simon Danczuk is eating breakfast in Portcullis House. It looks like there’s more honey than porridge in his bowl, but the backbencher’s calls for his own party to start changing don’t stick in his throat.

Already known for his outspoken criticism of Ed Miliband’s “one-dimensional shadow cabinet” and condemnation of its sloganeering, Danczuk has occasionally riled the party’s leadership for voicing his dissatisfaction with its direction.

However, rather than dismissing him as a pesky maverick, Miliband and his circle should perhaps pay attention. Danczuk is not just a crass Ed-basher. He has a fairly nuanced idea of where his party should go.

Danczuk has concerns about appealing to working-class voters such as those in his seat, which he himself describes as a “magnet for the dispossessed”. However, he also expresses admiration for the New Labour years, Tony Blair’s leadership specifically – often remembered for its Islington set poshing-up the party.

He is jovial and straightforward, his blue eyes glinting wryly as he discloses his current political concerns to me:

“It could be argued that the party has been hijacked by a metropolitan elite,” Danczuk remarks. “Unlike under Blair, where he had a whole array of different people around him for his long tenure, from Mo Mowlam through to Hazel Blears, with [John] Prescott throughout, Alan Johnson, John Reid and [Alan] Milburn and others.

“So the party had some sort of equilibrium in terms of who is running and controlling it,” he tells me, almost wistfully. He was elected in 2010 (a candidate in the seat where Gordon Brown made his “bigoted woman” blunder) and so missed those heady years of government.

He concludes, frankly: “Now it feels to me like the party’s been hijacked by a metropolitan elite that have a particular view of the world and they are insistent upon imposing that view on others, and I think it’s eroding the support that we get.”

Danczuk’s seat, which has a high immigrant and asylum seeker population, is a clear factor in his insistence that Labour mustn’t ignore Ukip. The rightwing party has eaten into Labour’s support, including its safe seats in the North. This twist of the political landscape has seen recent urges for Labour to renew its appeal to blue-collar voters, and, as Marcus Roberts points out in this week’s New Statesman, the party has been “haemorrhaging” working-class support for over a decade.

“There’s one point that’s been said but shouldn’t be said by Labour activists and Labour people,” Danczuk insists. “It’s that ‘we shouldn’t try and out-Ukip Ukip’” he rolls his eyes.

“I think it’s an unhelpful comment and some people within the party seem to have latched on to it. I think we should come out with policies that work and serve the communities we represent. I represent a very diverse constituency.”

He then methodically takes me through a comprehensive history of immigration in Rochdale town centre, from Ukrainians and Poles during the war, to the Sixties which welcomed people from the Asian subcontinent, to closing mills creating a ghost town in the Eighties and Nineties, leaving room for asylum seekers, many from Africa, to an Irish Traveller community, to Eastern Europeans today from EU states.

“Tell me why Rochdale people wouldn’t have a view on immigration? This is the crux of the point: to say to them, ‘immigration is good; it’s good for the economy’. Well, it might be good for Islington and other places in North London, but it’s less good for places like Rochdale.

“It’s put enormous pressure on services over a number of years, in terms of health services, education. My son is one of six kids out of 30 who you would describe as ‘white-English’. The rest would be African or Polish or Irish Travellers. . . Also [the pressure] in terms of employment in the town.”

His dig at the perception of modern Labour’s leadership consisting of a gaggle of kale-caning North London liberals reminds me of something Tottenham MP David Lammy once said, when I interviewed him last year: “The Labour Party isn’t just the metropolitan liberal elite party. It can’t just be the party of Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill.”

So it’s a concern that spans Northern and London representatives.

Danczuk believes “we need to strengthen the borders”, and also “have to get people out of the country quicker when they shouldn’t be here”. He argues that immigrants shouldn’t be able to claim benefits, nor have a right to housing, for the first 12 months of being in Britain. He also suggests that dual nationality is a problem:

“We need to look around Britishness, and we have what they call dual nationality. So you can be, for argument’s sake, Pakistani and British, and I know they don’t do that in Germany and in other countries. I wonder whether we should look to limiting the ability to have dual nationality. You either want to be British or you don’t want to be.”

Danczuk’s upbringing also plays a significant part in his political thinking. Brought up in Burnley, Lancashire, he says he was, “struggling to be working-class; I’m from the under-class, really aren’t I? Living on benefits with a single mother.”

His family wasn’t political but his grandmother was “very Labour”. She introduced him to George Orwell’s works, and by the time he was 14, he’d read “All of it – from Keep the Aspidistra Flying through to Homage to Catalonia”. He used to go down to the local library and read the Guardian, which he chuckles was “a bit odd”.

He recalls his black Doc Marten boots, in fashion when he was a teenager, wearing through the rubber sole down to his sock, and being unable to replace them. His mother would make what she called “Tarzan Soup”, which was “really just vegetables boiled in water”, he recalls. “She was dressing it up as something exciting and interesting to eat. The reality was it was a very poor man’s soup.”

Such a life on benefits was “pretty miserable”, according to the MP, and he is blunt about how this translates into his politics:

“My mother did many positive things, not least teaching me good manners – but a strange thing really to prioritise, and I just wished she’d done more to work.

“She [sometimes] wouldn’t get up in the morning, and my brother, who was only 18 months older than me, had to get us up for school. So that’s a five and six or seven year old doing it, you’re regularly late for school. I wish she’d had a stronger emphasis on the work ethic. I think that would have made it a more pleasant childhood. I have a strong work ethic and I think other people should have one. My views on welfare come from that personal experience, I accept that.”

He believes the coalition “should have a system that can differentiate between those who won’t work and those who can’t work”, and laments “a culture within the [Labour] party at the moment which suggests that you should not talk about people who won’t work, or should deny that there are such people. Well, there are lots of people out there that won’t work, don’t want to work. . . We have to have a straight and honest conversation about it and I just wish Labour would do that, because they would gain much greater respect from the electorate.”

Rochdale is where Cyril Smith, the late Lib Dem MP and serial abuser of young boys, reigned for two decades. Danczuk has recently released a book revealing the dark stories of the gargantuan politician, Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith. In it are horrifying first-person testimonies from some of Smith’s victims.

He reveals, darkly, that, “there were people out to protect Smith because he was part of a network of paedophiles. I’m absolutely, wholly convinced of that. And more will come out I think in the near future to show that Smith could’ve easily been part of a Westminster network of paedophiles.”

He explains that along with some other MPs, including Tom Watson, Zac Goldsmith and Tessa Munt, he is working on “exposing other politicians [of the past] who’ve been implicated in this stuff.”

In a chilling parallel, Danczuk has also had to deal with the child grooming ring scandal in Rochdale, which similarly involved vulnerable children and a failure on the part of local authorities.

“One of the reasons Smith wasn’t prosecuted in the Sixties was that the Director of Public Prosecutions said ‘they were unreliable witnesses’. What he meant by that was that these poor, white, working-class, vulnerable boys would make unreliable witnesses.

“And you fast-forward 30 or 40 years to the Rochdale grooming scandal and initially the CPS decided not to prosecute, the police weren’t pushing it, social services didn’t really care, and that was because they were poor, white, working-class, vulnerable girls. It upsets me actually. Why haven’t we moved in that 40 years?”

Danczuk sighs that he’ll be “happy to move off” the subject of child abuse, which has so consumed his work as an MP, and is looking forward to concentrating on less upsetting topics. He loves his work on the communities and local government select committee, for which he has a “98 per cent attendance record”, he beams.

Also, he and his wife own a deli in Rochdale, called Danczuk’s Deli, and they are finding the taxes levied on small businesses tough, so he wants to do some work around business rates. He hopes to open a new shop and grow the business.

One in Islington?

He grins: “Apparently that’s where Ed buys his bread from, isn’t it? I haven’t read that article but somebody was telling me. Not from Morrisons but from some Chalk Farm deli or something. . .”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Clive Lewis interview: I don't want to be seen as a future Labour leader

The shadow business secretary on his career prospects, working with the SNP and Ukip, and why he didn't punch a wall. 

“Lewis for leader!” Labour MP Gareth Thomas mischievously interjects minutes after my interview with Clive Lewis begins. The shadow business secretary has only been in parliament for 18 months but is already the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. His self-assuredness, media performances and left-wing stances (he backed Corbyn in 2015 and again this year) have led many to identify him as Labour’s coming man.

On 19 September, I met Lewis - crop-haired, slim and wearing his trademark tweed jacket - in Westminster's Portcullis House. He conceded that he was flattered by the attention (“It’s lovely to hear”) but was wary of the mantle bestowed on him. “This place has lots of ex-would-be leaders, it’s littered with them. I don’t want to be one of those ex-would-be leaders,” the Norwich South MP told me. “I don’t want a big fat target on my head. I don’t want to cause the resentment of my colleagues by being some upstart that’s been here 18 months and then thinks they can be leader ... I’ve never asked for that. All I want to do is do my job and do it to the best of my ability.”

But he did not rule out standing in the future: “I think that anyone who comes into this place wants to do what’s best for the party and what’s best for the country - in any way that they can.”

Lewis, who is 45, was appointed to his current position in Labour’s recent reshuffle having previously held the defence brief. His time in that role was marked by a feud over Trident. Minutes before he delivered his party conference speech, the former soldier was informed that a line committing Labour to the project’s renewal had been removed by Corbyn’s office. Such was Lewis’s annoyance that he was said to have punched a wall after leaving the stage.

“I punched no walls,” he told me a month on from the speech. “Some people said to me ‘why don’t you just play along with it?’ Well, first of all it’s not true. And secondly, I am not prepared to allow myself to be associated with violent actions because it’s all too easy as a black man to be stereotyped as violent and angry - and I’m not. I’m not a violent person. Yes, it’s a bit of fun now, but very quickly certain elements of the media can begin to build up an image, a perception, a frame ... There’s a world of difference between violently punching a wall and being annoyed.”

Lewis said that he was “happy with” the speech he gave and that “you’re always going to have negotiation on lines”. The problem, he added, was “the timing”. But though the intervention frustrated Lewis, it improved his standing among Labour MPs who hailed him as the pragmatic face of Corbynism. His subsequent move to business was regarded by some as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis told me. “I’m confident that that the reason I was moved, what I was told, is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio”.

Nia Griffith, his successor as shadow defence secretary, has since announced that the party will support Trident renewal in its manifesto despite its leader’s unilateralism. “Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “I think everyone understands that Jeremy’s position hasn’t changed. Jeremy still believes in unilateral disarmament, that is his modus operandi, that’s how he rolls and that’s one of the reasons why he is leader of the Labour Party ... But he’s also a democrat and he’s also a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

Lewis, himself a long-standing opponent of Trident, added: “You need a Labour government to ensure that we can put those nuclear missiles on the table and to begin to get rid of them on a global scale.”

He also affirmed his support for Nato, an institution which at times Corbyn has suggested should be disbanded. “The values that underpin Nato are social democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression. Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats that initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it, it’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”


Clive Anthony Lewis was born on 11 September 1971 and grew up on a council estate in Northampton. It was his Afro-Caribbean father, a factory worker and trade union official, who drew him to politics. “My dad always used to say “The Labour Party has fought for us, it’s really important that you understand that. What you have, the opportunities that working people and black people have, is down to the fact that people fought before you and continue to fight.”

After becoming the first in his family to attend university (reading economics at Bradford) he was elected student union president and vice president of the NUS. Lewis then spent a decade as a BBC TV news reporter and also became an army reservist, serving a tour of duty of Afghanistan in 2009. He was inspired to enlist by his grandfather. “He fought in Normandy in the Second World War and I used to go back over with him and see the camaraderie with the old paras ... Whatever people’s views of the armed forces, that’s one thing that no one can take away, they generate such friendships, such a bond of union”.

Lewis told me that his time in the military complemented, rather than contradicted, his politics. “I think many of the virtues and values of the army are very similar to the virtues and values of socialism, of the Labour Party. It’s about looking out for each other, it’s about working as a team, it’s about understanding. The worst insult I remember in the army is ‘jack bastard’. What that said was that you basically put yourself before the team, you’ve been selfish”.

He added: “People have to remember that the armed forces do as democratically elected governments tell them to do. They don’t arbitrarily go into countries and kick off. These are decisions that are made by our politicians.”

After returning from service in Helmand province, he suffered from depression. “I met guys who had lost friends, seen horrible things and they had ghost eyes, dead eyes, it’s the only way I can describe it. People that I saw had far more reason to have depression or worse. Part of my negative feedback loop was the fact that I felt increasingly guilty about being depressed because I didn’t feel that I had the right to be depressed because I knew people who’d seen far worse ...  I’m now told that is quite common but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Lewis added: “It makes you realise that when the armed forces go abroad, when they do serve on our behalf, what they do, what they go through, that’s not something that anyone can take away from them.”

In May 2015, he was one of a raft of left-wing MPs (Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kate Osamor, Cat Smith) to enter parliament and back Corbyn’s leadership bid. As shadow business secretary, he believes that Brexit and Theresa May’s economic interventionism offer political openings for Labour. “I feel debate is moving onto natural Labour territory. But not the Labour territory of the 1970s, not picking winners territory. It’s moving to a territory that many on the left have long argued for, about having a muscular, brave, entrepreneurial state which can work in partnership with business”.

He added: “We can say we’re the party of business. But not business as usual ...  I think there are lots of people now, and businesses, who will be aghast at the shambles, the seeming direction we seem to be going in.

“The British people have spoken, they said they wanted to take back control, we have to respect that. But they didn’t vote to trash the economy, they didn’t vote for their jobs to disintegrate, they didn’t vote to see their businesses decimated, they didn’t vote to see a run on the pound, they didn’t vote for high levels of inflation.”

On the day we met, an Ipsos MORI poll put the Tories 18 points ahead of Labour (a subsequent YouGov survey has them 16 ahead). “I’m not too spooked by the polls at the moment,” Lewis told me when I mentioned the apocalyptic figures (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654). “Nobody wants to be where we are but I’m quite clear that once we get up a head of steam we’ll begin to see that narrow. I definitely don’t have any doubts about that, it will begin to narrow.”

Lewis is a long-standing advocate of proportional representation and of a “progressive alliance”. He told me that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party should have fielded a single pro-European candidate in the recent Witney by-election (which the Conservatives won with a reduced majority) and that he was open to working with the SNP.

“There are lots of people, including the Scottish Labour Party, who are aghast that you can say that. I think it has to be put out there. I want to see a revival of Scottish Labour but we also have to be realistic about where they are, the time scale and timeframe of them coming back.

“I’m not talking them down, I’m simply saying that we want to see a Labour government in Westminster and that means asking some hard questions about how we’re going to achieve that, especially if the boundary changes come in ... If that means working with the SNP then we have to look at that.”

Even more strikingly, he suggested that Labour had to “think about talking to parties like Ukip to try and get over that finishing line.”

Lewis explained: “If Ukip survive as a political force these coming weeks and months they’re obviously pro-PR as well. I despise much of what Ukip stand for, it’s anathema to me, but I also understand that it could be the difference between changing our electoral system or not ... These are things that some people find deeply offensive but I’ve not come into politics to duck the tough issues." 

He praised Corbyn for “having won” the argument over austerity, for his “dignified” apology over the Iraq war and for putting Labour in surplus (owing to its near-tripled membership of 550,000).

“History will show that Jeremy Corbyn was someone who came in at a time when politics was tired, people were losing faith in it, especially people who come from the progressive side of politics.

“Whatever people think of Jeremy’s style, whatever they think of his leadership, whatever they think of him personally, you can’t take that away from him. He’s revived politics in a way that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time. I know he’s got his doubters and detractors but I think ultimately he’s made our party in many ways stronger than it was a year ago.”

I asked Lewis whether he expected Corbyn to lead Labour into the next general election. “Yes, I do. And I think it depends when that general election is. If it’s next year then most certainly.

“If it’s 2020? That’s a question for Jeremy. I think, as I understand it, he is going to but I don’t know the inside of his mind, I don’t know what he’s thinking. I haven’t heard anything to suggest that he has anything other than the intention to lead us into a general election and to become prime minister.”

Of his own prospects, he remained equanimous. “Always be wary of Greeks bearing gifts. It’s lovely to hear but I know my own fallibilities and weaknesses.

“I haven’t come from a background where I’ve had it imbued in me from an early age that I’m destined to lead or to rule. I don’t have that arrogant self-belief, the sense of entitlement that it’s coming my way or should do. I can’t believe I’m in the House of Commons and I can’t believe that I’m shadow business secretary. I still pinch myself. That’s enough for me at the moment, it really is. That’s the honest truth.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.